2010 Pile o’ Books: The Aftermath

Pile o’ Books is two years old. I once read that on the day a child turns two you’re meant to be able to double their height and you will know their length as an adult. Always seemed to me there’d be quite a few short adults wandering around.

So what does P’o’B reaching toddlerdom mean? Well, it means that it’s one of the longest-running writing projects I’ve worked on, if we don’t include the ‘novel’ I’ve been pattering at for about five years. (And seeing as barely 1000 words pattered out last year, I don’t think we need to.) It’s also one of the longest-running structured reading projects I’ve thrown myself into. Apart, perhaps from something in my later primary school years called Book It! which involved getting your teacher to give you a sticker for every book you’d read and when you had five stickers you got a star-sticker on a purple holographic badge and a free kids meal at Pizza Hut. I think for quite some time Thursday nights meant a pizza dinner (and an awesome sparkly badge).

So does Pile o’ Books 2010 deserve any fast food rewards? Perhaps. I must admit to being bemused over posting on only 22 books when the previous year we managed 35. Even if you add in the few which didn’t fit the alphabetical imperative we still don’t get to 35. It’s, well, disappointing. Clearly trying to ground a topsy-turvy new single life and taking 6-week holidays are things more conducive to reading than whatever the heck it is I did in 2010. But there are positives too. Having a post featured on Freshly Pressed meant over 3300 people checked out Pile o’ Books in one day and some of you even decided to hang around, subscribe, comment, add a link on your own pages—this, I think, can be deemed a success. And is worth a complimentary garlic bread at least.

And so with another year over (in fact, with the new one already begun), it’s time to sit back and look ahead to P’o’B 2011 (and for your humble blogger, other life things too). All will be revealed in a matter of days. And in the meantime, a list:

Favourite book read in 2010: Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow.

Happiest discovery: Richard Ford.

Literary props: Tackling Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa and loving it.

Most disappointing book: Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, if only because my expectations ran so high.

Purged book most sad to let go: George Saunders’ The Braindead Megaphone. I love Saunders’ fiction but have heard so-so things about this collection of essays, and as I’ve had it for a few years and not opened it, and as I don’t read much non-fiction, I decided to set it free.

Happiest book re-owned: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. One of my favourite novels which I surrendered in a hostel in Ottawa, Canada. A friend gave me a replacement copy for Christmas, and all is now right with the world.

Thank you for reading.

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M is for McCarthy

The last time I read a Cormac McCarthy novel I became so animated that a stranger sharing my dining space walked over and insisted I write down the name of the book I was reading because any book which caused someone to have so many emotions flash across their face was worth purchasing. Now I’ll admit there was a fair chance this was a line, but I still got the opportunity to spread the McCarthy gospel—so let’s not dwell on my gullibility, but rather the most recent book from one of my favourite authors.

The letter M was always going to be hard because I had so many books to choose from. No need to worry for now that the letters Q and V are coming up, for M I was solid. Margaret Atwood, Inspector Montalbano, Magical themes and titles, Mormons, the options fanned around me like a fan made of books. In the end the choice was easy. Sitting in the pile was The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy.

The Sunset Limited is ‘a novel in dramatic form’. Call me dense, but that’s basically a play, right? And call me denser still but I find that reading a play is very different to reading a novel, dramatically formed or otherwise. Remember that english teacher who made you read Othello out loud because ‘Shakespeare was meant to be performed’? They had a point. And even though when reading stories in this structure I tend to read aloud to myself in my head (if you follow me), it can’t replace seeing the play/novel in dramatic form and I don’t think it can affect you in the same way. I am more than happy to re-read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Hamlet, The Lady in the Van, Don’s Party or Waiting for Godot, but the reason I go back to these plays and like them so much is that as well as reading them I have also seen them. So I’m wondering: if I see The Sunset Limited performed will I like it more than I did when I read it? And would I then re-read it to different result?

I’ve spoken about the thrill we experience when we discover one of our favourite authors has a new book on the shelves; but what do you do when that new book fails to satisfy like others have? Possibly it depends how disappointed you are. I’m not overly distraught in this case, just a little underwhelmed. I am used to reading Mr McCarthy and being thrust into a thoughtful haze for a number of days, to feeling it necessary to take long full breaths just to stay somewhat upright, to uttering his name in low, reverential tones the type of which I otherwise reserve for large religious buildings, national art galleries and the British Museum. If someone asked me should I read The Road or No Country for Old Men I’d likely hold their collar and rock them about a bit in my insistence that they must. If they asked me should they read The Sunset Limited I would look up from my coffee, go to point my teaspoon at them in a half-hearted manner, then shrug and say, ‘Sure, there’re some interesting bits. It’s McCarthy after all.’

What I like best, and admire  most, about McCarthy’s writing are his artful descriptions and his ability to work with tension, suspense, conflict and basic, raw human emotions (and weave a plot through it all). His dialogue can be pretty magic too, though often spare, and it wouldn’t usually be the first thing I mentioned when discussing his work. But here we have a novel in dramatic form and thus what we have is dialogue, and almost dialogue alone. What Sunset gives us is an old-school philosophical discussion on life and religion. Two characters sitting in a bare room in a ‘black ghetto’—opposites in many ways, representative of different worlds—are brought together by a simple, desperate act. A white, educated man who believes existence in this world offers nothing tries to kill himself and is rescued by a black man, ex-con, who believes that God and the Bible are the only answer anyone needs to anything. Lock them in a room and discuss. And in the end the answer is…

I think the reasons for my lack of whelm are three-fold: I find reading a play simply to read it a slightly utilitarian experience; the thing I love most about McCarthy’s writing is his description (which scripts necessarily lack); and when you revere an author so much and the last thing he wrote was The Road, well, your expectations for the next thing from him are high—ridiculously high—and the chances of him meeting those expectations are slim no matter what he produces, but perhaps especially when what he produces is a little play and you weren’t really expecting that at all.

If you cast your eyes over the list of plays I like, you’ll see that a novel in dramatic form which deals with the notions of, and reasons for, existence should be something which appeals to me. And like I said, The Sunset Limited isn’t completely devoid of appeal, but it lacked oomph and didn’t have that McCarthy road-train effect on my being which I’ve come to expect. I’m willing to accept some of this as a deficit of skill or comprehension as a reader, but not all of it. I do believe that if I saw it performed I would appreciate it more and perhaps I would flip back into using those respectful church/Picasso/Rosetta-stone tones. Perhaps you should read it and see for yourself. It’s McCarthy after all.

Book 26: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

I don’t know where to begin. I finished reading this book two weeks ago and I’m still speechless (about the book, not speechless in general, that’s impossible). I’m still thinking about it. Still trying to decide things. And still feel ill-equipped to explain it to anyone (except in the barest of terms). All I can say is that Blood Meridian is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read. I am in awe of it. Like Wayne and Garth to Aerosmith … I feel unworthy.

I’m not going to say anything new here – the novel is 25 years old, it’s on many people’s fave list (probably a certain genre of person – see my views on this in a very early post – though I’m starting to wonder about this now), everyone has reviewed it. And I just don’t think I’m capable of expressing what it is I want to express. A case in point: when stirring a tasty no-sugar hot chocolate in a hostel kitchen, I was asked what I was reading by a fellow traveller. On my reply, which I was kind of chuffed to be able to say – cos let’s face it, the answer could have been much less impressive – I was then asked what the novel was about.

‘Um, it’s about this boy who kind of joins a gang, in the wild west, and there’s all this blood and violence, oh and Indians. Comanches. Scalping. More blood. It’s pretty full on.’

Yep, Rhodes scholar.

Let’s not worry about the plot anyway. That wasn’t so important for me. What was important were the characters, the writing, the intensity of the novel and the way it made me feel.

It’s tricky to write about how a book makes you feel. It runs the risk of the ‘I don’t know Art but I know what I like’ genre of discussion. But that’s about all I can explain about this book. I can tell, though probably not show.

When reading Blood Meridian I was compelled to turn the pages, despite often feeling frightened, disgusted, overwhelmed by violence, and despising many of the characters. Like the men in the novel forced by circumstance (and greed) to keep plowing on through a dead, deadly and inhospitable landscape; I was pushed on by an intensity in the narrative and description (oh the descriptions!), by the collection of words on the page, and a strange whirling in my head and thumping in my chest. By a certain disbelief at what was happening and a need to find out what was going to happen next. Like the guns for hire, I felt covered in grime and sweat, stumbling over rocks and spiky vegetation, frightened, desperate and savage. I’m surprised I too didn’t start spitting every five minutes.

And though the book is said to be the Kid’s story, it’s the Judge that stays with you. I’ve read more than a few times that No Country for Old Men‘s murdering psycho Anton Chigurh is considered one of the scariest muthas created. Well, the Judge kicks Chigurh to the kerb like nobody’s business. Do you want to meet the devil in human form? Introduce yourself to the Judge – a terrifying, all-knowing, seemingly unstoppable journeyman of evil. Is he Lucifer in disguise? Or is it more terrifying if he’s just a man? There are certainly many references to the lower realms as the band of killers make their way through the American south-west. Hell on Earth? Or is an individual’s existence just a private hell of their own?

Depressed yet?

And yet there is humour in this book. Sure, gallows humour often, and perhaps more of a disbelief at events that leads you to a little breath of laughter in lieu of gnashing your teeth. But it’s there.

For me, raised on John Wayne, Spaghetti Westerns, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Blood Meridian takes the notion of the Wild West expansion and knocks it on its head and shakes it about til it is beaten and bruised into a weeping lump of degradation. Paint your Wagon? How about you flip it over and use it as a barricade against the hordes of desperadoes – native, Mexican and Americano – riding down upon you in a blood lust.

Is this book perfect? Of course not. You can read the original New York Times review, which contains as much criticism as praise. But I haven’t been stirred up like this by a novel in some time. And that’s always a welcome feeling – even if the stirring puts you off balance a bit, or indeed leaves you lying face down in the dirt, scrambling for breath.

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Canadian depository: Ottawa Backpackers Inn – under the ‘Sierra Nevada’ bunk in the ‘North America’ room. Fitting, non?

Week Two: No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

no-countryI spent  years avoiding Cormac McCarthy. Like a hangdog sheriff he stalked me through various university courses, tempting award winnings (his) begging for a read and even Oprah got on board at some point, but still I resisted. He frightened me a bit. Those spare, dusty excerpts that were compulsory inclusions in university courses rubbed against me like rusty barbed wire. He was too concise, measured, too short of sentence and punctuation, too vernacular, too male and western. No, no, this kind of  ‘American’ writing was not for me.

I don’t quite know why I took exception with Mr McCarthy for these reasons. I was obsessed with Elmore Leonard for quite a few years, I had already come to the table on Annie Proulx but Cormac, well, sir, I was just darn scared. And no one really pressed it. Yes, he appeared in all my uni materials but apart from the lecturer pointing him out and that one middle-aged guy writing his crime novel exclaiming his brilliance, most others were happy for the tumbleweeds to roll by … maybe they were all scared too.

And then last year I read The Road. This is not the time to get in to my passion and primordial connection to distopia/end of days stories – we’ll be here for hours – let’s just say Z for Zachariah, 1984 and Taronga were some of my favourite books as a young teenager.  They speak to a core of me that’s difficult to explain and probably needs the assistance of a psychologist. But, yes, The Road – loved it, loved it, loved it. WOW. BLOWN AWAY.  And so then I took on a new personal mission (I have several) to read everything Mr Mac had ever written. And I have started with No Country for Old Men (sometimes it takes me a while to get on to those personal missions).

I haven’t seen the film – I like to read the books  first, where I can. But if the film has the same sinister, lone ,desperate intensity of the book then I am there with ostrich-skin boots on. I like that Cormac McCarthy uses mostly dialogue and characters telling their own stories, I like that you have to work out what is going on yourself, I like that he uses shortish sentences and not much punctuation. I like that when I read this book I felt the desert sand grit in my eyes, heard the shortened breath of cornered men and smelt the stale tequila scent of musty, cheap hotels and bars. No Country for Old Men is dark and heavy and every word pushes you forward through an edgy tale that you’re not really sure you want to be riding along with but, like the characters, have little choice but to continue on. Dear Mr McCarthy, I am so sorry I doubted you for so long.